Just about every national pundit has the same take on Ted Cruz's victory in Texas's Senate primary: Another Tea Party triumph! It's just like Florida in 2010, where "moderate" Governor Charlie Crist lost to insurgent Marco Rubio, or Indiana earlier this year, where "moderate" Senator Richard Lugar was dethroned by Tea Partier Richard Mourdock. The establishment loses again, and the new wave of the GOP continues its takeover of the party.
On the surface, it sounds convincing. In the runoff for the U.S. Senate nomination, Cruz, running as a hard-core conservative, did upset David Dewhurst, who's been lieutenant governor—an unusually powerful position in Texas—for almost a decade. At the Washington Examiner, Conn Carroll summed up the almost-universal spin on the result: "Following the big-government excess of the Bush years, the Republican party was in desperate need of change," he writes. "The Tea Party has helped deliver it, and a victory in Bush’s home state would go a long way to making that change permanent."
The only problem with that interpretation is that it's dead wrong, based on a profound ignorance of the real dynamics of Republican politics in the Lone Star State. The election does indeed mark the beginning of a new regime in Texas politics. It's just not a Tea Party regime.
To understand what happened, you have to know a few years' history. Until recently, the Tea Party in Texas was ruled largely by Governor Rick Perry, who was the first nationally prominent politician to wholeheartedly embrace the Tea Party in 2009. But Perry didn't endorse Cruz; instead, he was Dewhurst's most prominent backer. And in fact, the two GOP senate candidates had almost zero policy disagreements; when it came to ideology, this thing was as close as the wall-touch in an Olympic swimming event. Dewhurst is a down-the-line, hardcore right-winger who has presided, as lieutenant governor, over a state Senate that slashed budgets and de-funded education and served as a model for the Scott Walkers of the world. Cruz and his extremely generous Tea Party funders painted Dewhurst as a "moderate"; that's a little like calling Michael Phelps a "loser" because he finally got out-touched in a race.
What Ted Cruz's once-unlikely victory, which practically ensures that he will become the senator to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison next January (Texas Democrats remain an anemic lot), actually signals is this: Rick Perry's era of dominance is over. Perry is arguably the single most powerful political figure in Texas history—a man who's been governor so long that he has made every consequential appointment in the entire state apparatus. Cruz's victory bore little resemblance to Mourdock's defeat of Lugar, which did have an ideological thrust. In Texas, the party was dethroning its longtime monarch, not ushering in a new brand of politics.
Despite the tales Carroll and others spin, Cruz is hardly a measure of Tea Party purity—and far from a repudiation of the Bush era. In fact, George W. Bush made Ted Cruz. He began as a legal expert for Dubya's presidential campaign in 2000—after the bitter rivalry between the Bush/Rove camp and the Perry people had begun to divide the Texas GOP. Cruz was a Bushie—and still is. He got positions at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission and, recognizing that service, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appointed Cruz as the state's solicitor general in 2003. Last year, when Cruz filed for U.S. Senate, it was the up-and-coming political star of the Bush family, George P. Bush, whose group Hispanic Republicans of Texas became one of the first to give him a big endorsement.
Meanwhile, the Bush family's most bitter rival in Texas politics—Perry—had become the toast of the Tea Party movement. The longest-serving governor in the state, he consolidated power far beyond what Bush had ever achieved in the state, and over time, he built an unlikely political fiefdom. Business conservatives liked Perry for his devout cronyism and his anti-regulation policies. Social conservatives liked him for his hard lines on gay marriage and abortion. And when the Tea Party movement began, Perry's seemingly impeccable timing made him the first notable pol to call himself a Tea Partier—passionately telling a crowd on Tax Day 2009, when the movement announced its arrival, that states' rights overrode almost anything the feds could throw at the Lone Star State. A strong twang and his "Come and Take It" boots won over just about everyone else. It was a partnership only Perry could conjure, and he ruled the state with a fierce grip on power. He flexed his political muscle in 2010 by destroying his last remaining rival—the most popular politician in the state, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—when she challenged him in a gubernatorial primary. It was also in 2010 that Texas's moderate Republicans legislators, running in synch with Perry, lost out to Tea Party fervor. By 2010, few dared to mess with Perry. He had support from the establishment, support from the Tea Party, and an impressive record of job creation. He seemed unstoppable.
But others in the party that runs the state ached for power. Twelve years with Perry in the governor's office—seemingly a position he could hold for life if he wished—left many ambitious Republicans with nowhere to go. And then, as luck would have it, he made the foolhardy decision to run for president. His lieutenant governor—an awkward, wealthy businessman known for his bizarre personality—announced his run for the state's open Senate seat, which the humiliated Hutchison had decided to abandon after Perry's machine had turned her from beloved figure to has-been. Dewhurst had name recognition and $175 million in personal wealth, more than enough to beat the no-name GOP candidates who planned to run against him. It all seemed preordained. Perry would be president, Dewhurst would go to the Senate, and everyone else could finally move up a notch. The GOP comptroller and agriculture commissioner both eyed the lieutenant governor's office. The attorney general began testing the waters for a gubernatorial run.
Then everything crashed down. Perry's presidential bid was disastrous. Spying weakness in the once-invincible governor, his tenuous coalition began to fracture. He returned to Texas eager to rebuild.
Enter Cruz. The relatively unknown candidate had spent the last several years writing op-eds and making speeches for conservative think tanks. Few knew much about him; he'd held some appointments at the federal level, courtesy of Bush, and been Texas solicitor general—but aside from the most superficial resemblance to Tea Party crush Marco Rubio, that was about it as far as his credentials went. An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Cruz had never run for office. But he'd spent a lot of time with the hard right.
And then Cruz got a big break. A legal fight over redistricting pushed back the dates of Texas's primaries, over and over again. Instead of occurring in early March, when eyes would still be focused on the presidential contest, the Senate primary wound up scheduled for the end of May. With his largesse and political power, Dewhurst still appeared to have the advantage. Perry, marshaling his support, endorsed his "lite governor." But the extra time exposed Dewhurst's weaknesses as a retail politician. And with the suddenly diminished Perry fully involved, the Senate primary became a chance to overthrow folks who'd ruled for a long time.
Dewhurst completely lacked Perry's political talents. Instead, between his off-putting manner and his long-time in office, he was immediately suspect with the state's Tea Partiers. Ironically, Perry had sown the seeds of his own defeat; combining support from so many different wings of the party, he'd created a political landscape only he could master. Cruz began to climb in the polls and rather than ignoring him, Dewhurst went on the attack with ads that only served to boost Cruz's name recognition. National Tea Party groups—and media stalwarts like The National Review and RedState—began to champion Cruz as well, and suddenly national stars like Sarah Palin were helping raise money for the "Tea Party candidate." Meanwhile, Dewhurst had another problem: Unlike Cruz, he had a record to dissect and distort. Cruz made hay with the lieutenant governor's role in budget negotiations and his occasional support for spending increases at a time when the state was flush with cash. Unlike in Indiana, where Dick Lugar proudly stuck to his less-than-popular stances, in Texas both Cruz and Dewhurst tried to run to the right of one another. It was Cruz, with immeasurably more political talent than Dewhurst, who won, successfully painted the lite guv as an impure moderate. It was hardly an accurate portrayal, but Dewhurst couldn't find a way to argue back.
By the time the primary arrived at the end of May, a run-off between Cruz and Dewhurst looked likely, and in the end, Dewhurst fell short of the necessary 50 percent. He bested Cruz in a multi-candidate field, 45-34. And ever since Cruz forced two more months of campaigning, he's had had the momentum. Dewhurst's ads never took hold, and Cruz became the biggest name in Tea Party fundraising. In 2010, it was Perry who dominated grassroots campaigning; this time, Cruz was known as the grassroots candidate. In the end, Dewhurst loaned his campaign $24.5 million, and Cruz still out-moneyed him, with national Tea Party money flowing freely.
To save face, virtually all of Perry's campaign team was dispatched to help rescue what was looking more and more like a sinking ship. Perry didn't withdraw from the field; determined to show that he still ruled Texas, the governor waded deeper into the race, recording ads and campaigning for Dewhurst—even after Perry, in a stunning moment, got booed at the state's Republican convention for championing the lieutenant governor. He was in a lose-lose situation: Even if Dewhurst won, the governor had lost the Tea Party status he'd once enjoyed. But Cruz's victory was worse; after his own embarrassing time on the national stage, Perry had bet on the wrong horse at his home track. In the end, his endorsement of Dewhurst seems like a net-minus.
If this were just about the Tea Party, we would have seen at least some level of consistency in last night's outcomes. But while Cruz beat Dewhurst, three different state legislative runoffs resulted in Tea Party losses, largely because they'd supported major cuts to public schools. ParentPAC, a pro-public education group, had major victories in the state. There was a hard-line Tea Party victory in the state Supreme Court race, but in the state's Railroad Commission, the Tea Party candidate lost.
All things considered, it's hard to argue that this political drama marks an ideological revolution. Cruz and Dewhurst are both tied to different establishments—but they agreed on almost every issue, down to the syllable. It wasn't a victory for the right wing, even though everyone—including NPR—is trumpeting it that way today.
Instead, what happened in Texas is best understood with another sports metaphor—tennis, in this case. Rick Perry was once the Roger Federer of Texas politics. He reigned supreme, with almost total power. Then that dominance began to falter. Rafael Nadal came in and beat him and, soon enough, others followed suit. Federer is hardly finished—he remains a major force. But not the only one, and not the dominant one.
Cruz's victory paves the way for other Texas conservatives to emerge—the Murrays and Djokovics of the Lone Star State. And much like the current era of tennis, the next few years of Republican primaries will likely produce a lot of competitive matches, with a lot more unexpected outcomes.